It was shaping up to be a lazy afternoon round Tinahely in the hills of south Wicklow. "Up and on, then," cried Hugh Coogan, farmer and walker, brandishing his hiking staff. "Time to work it all off, eh!"
In the jovial company of Hugh and his friend and neighbour Mary O'Connor, Jane and I swung with a will along the Wicklow Way. The first item we passed was a melancholy one, the memorial cross that marks the spot where poor Dr James McNamara shot himself by accident back in 1916 -- the local medical officer was crossing a ditch when his gun snagged against the wire fence and went off.
Down the track apiece we came to the seven-gated Ballybeg Rath. Peering inside an ancient hollow ash, I saw a great lump of red and white quartzite gripped deep, as if being swallowed by the leathery old throat of the tree.
There was sky-blue brooklime in the stream at Ballycumber Ford, and rain-pearled grass half-hiding the marble memorial just up the lane that told the birds and cattle and occasional passing human of the fame of Luke O'Toole, 1873-1929, 'first full-time secretary of the GAA'.
At The Green, Hugh stood contemplating the old schoolhouse on the crossroads. "All Kyle, all Carrigroe, all Ballybeg got educated here. My daddy went here." Now the old school is a holiday home, and Carrigroe and Ballybeg get more sophisticated schooling much further afield. In the lane where the kids once pelted home downhill we swung our sticks, looking forward to tea at Hugh's home farm of Kyle just round the curve of the hill.
What visitor to Kyle Farmhouse would be so foolish as to leave Margaret Coogan's teapot unpunished and her home baking unscathed?
When we stepped out again into the strong afternoon sunlight, we felt like well-fed monarchs.
I climbed Ballycumber Hill with my back to the view, just for the pleasure of embracing it at the top. A sublime prospect, one that those who stick to the famous beauty spots and summits of Wicklow never see -- Eagle Hill with its warty lump of rock, the wide farming plains of Carlow out west where great flats of milky rain went sliding across fields, woods and boglands, and Lugnaquilla's purple back rising like a fish on the long wave of the northern skyline.
"In Wicklow we can pick out Lug all the time," Hugh observed, "and we scarcely bother learning the names of the rest."
South Wicklow holds a more subtle appeal for a walker than the glamour and drama of the mountainous northern half of the county. Now dedicated local folk such as Hugh, Margaret and Mary O'Connor, walkers and organisers, doers and persuaders who really know their own patch, have turned their neighbourhood village of Tinahely into a hub from which walkers can explore hidden country of enormous, if understated charm -- starting with the upcoming Tinahely Trail Walking Festival (see right).
The wind rushed with a sea-like susurration in the young spruce and fir along the crest of Ballycumber Hill as we walked its squelchy path south to another tremendous viewpoint, down over Carlow and Wexford. On the south-west horizon the two counties rose together into the peak of Mount Leinster, capping the Blackstairs range 20 miles off. It was a view to add relish to any al fresco snack.
Sitting in the heather we whaled into the last of the baking, then bowled down an old green cart track to find the Wicklow Way curling at the foot of the hill once more.